Frankenstein and the Uncanny Valley
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance
As Aristotle so beautifully puts it, the purpose of art is to express our inner workings in an outward fashion. From time immemorial, humankind has looked to art as a way to express its questions, ideas, fears, and hopes about everything, from the mundane to the exemplary. In this pursuit, the depiction of humanity has been one of the most affluent topics, and has been observed in works of art from the beginning of mankind. Cavemen painted depictions of themselves on the walls of their dwellings; the Egyptians created funeral masks with the likeness of the corpse portrayed in exceptional detail. Reforms in art consistently depict reforms of society, and our ability to create art is, in fact, one of the things that sets humans apart from other creatures. Art takes many forms: auditory, visual, physical, and written are all examples. So it makes sense that books, too, would ask the question of what makes us human. That is exactly what Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does; through the narrative of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Shelley explores what makes a being human and, conversely, what makes a being just a creature. Her considerations and ideas have remained pertinent into contemporary times, and nowhere is her influence more noted than in the arena of robotic development.
Robotic development would be considered by many to be purely scientific, but there is a surprising amount of art involved; aesthetic design of the AI, development of the AI’s programming, and decisions regarding the AI’s purpose all involve such a high level of imagination and creativity that the development of a robot could very well be considered an art form in itself. Like other art forms, robotic development is use to express humanity, and our questions therein. Frankenstein has held great significance in the advancement of robotics; Isaac Asimov, a noted science-fiction author, created the Three Laws of Robotics (to which developers still adhere) in response to a “Frankenstein Complex” present in regards to the development of artificial life.
But Life, in these contexts, is deeper than merely animation; it is the imparting of a soul. For centuries, scientists and laymen alike have looked to distinct abilities of humans as evidence of our uniqueness – of our superiority over other animals. Perhaps instinctively, this search has centered almost exclusively on cognitive capacities. Communication, tool use, tool formation, and social constructs have all, at one time or another, been pointed to as defining characteristics of what makes humans special. Consequently, many have used this same argument to delineate humans as the only creatures that possess a soul. To meddle in this area is to meddle in God’s domain. This fear of man broaching, through technology, into God’s realm and being unable to control his own creations is referred to as the “Frankenstein Complex” by Isaac Asimov in a number of his essays (most notably (Asimov 1978)). (McCauley, 2007).
The “Frankenstein Complex,” obviously named for Dr. Victor and his Creation, stems from the fear of artificial humanity getting away from its creator, and wrecking mass chaos. This, of course, assumes that the “creature” would be innately brutish and violent, which suggests that it is empathy and compassion that is evidence of our souls, and subsequently separates humans from animals. Perhaps we just project the behaviors we fear or abhor upon anything non-human, to spare us from accountability. After all, those who can’t be trusted are called “rats,” and those who are sly and conniving are snakes; it’s not a far stretch to assume that we might do the same for all undesirable traits.
The dictum we examined in the previous chapter “there are certain things that are just wrong to do” – is replaced in this aspect of the myth with the maxim “there are things that are wrong to do because they must or will inevitably lead to great harm to human beings.” The archetypal image of this scenario is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster on a rampage – terrorizing, hurting, and killing the innocent” (Rollin, p. 68, 1995).
This is a bit misleading, as the Creature’s violence only begins after being continually spurned, but the concept seems to hold true nevertheless. The Creature is a creature partially due to his inhumane behaviors, and the potential of that violence in an AI is frightening.
That is not the only reason behind questioning the Creature’s humanity, of course. A vast problem with the acceptance of the Creature- and the reason behind his rejection from society- is his outward appearance and his origin. He acts human enough, of course, but he simply doesn’t look human.
Even though the Creature was ‘born’ through unnatural, scientific means, and even though his appearance is distorted, he exhibits enough human traits to make the reader wonder, ‘is the Creature really a monster, or a deformed human being?’ This question of the monster’s humanity points to the underlying questions with which Shelley’s Frankenstein grapple: can we consider the Creature to be human, despite its appearance and origin? If so, how do we understand the concept of humanity? (Johnson, p. 3, 2009).
So we can presume that the Creature’s appearance is too unlike a human’s for him to ever blend in; but at the same time, he must look somewhat human, or else he wouldn’t be recognized as anything close to a human. Apparently, there is some amount of truth to this presumption of human-like deformity, at least from a psychological perspective.
As Sigmund Freud has explained, ‘the “uncanny” is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar’ (370)… Drawing on the writings of E. Jentsch, he concludes that ‘A particularly favorable condition for awakening uncanny sensations is created when there is intellectual uncertainty whether an object is alive or not, and when an inanimate object becomes too much like an animate one’ (385). Our basic understanding of the process of life is that the dead do not return to the living. (Zylinska, p. 39, 2002).
Uncanny seems to be a perfect adjective to describe the Creature; he is made of parts which were once dead, but are now again living, thus giving us cause to question whether he is truly alive or dead. This is yet another area in which Frankenstein’s influence on and similarity to robotics is clear. In the preceding quote, Freud also mentions that uncanny feelings can arise if there is a question of inanimate objects seeming too animated, which is one of the central questions in AI development. The prevailing theory regarding how humanlike a robot should be is called the Uncanny Valley.
“First posited by roboticist Masahiro Mori [Mori, 1970], the uncanny valley theory holds that the level of realism will directly determine how eerie (uncanny) a humanlike depiction will be. The theory contends that cartoonish depictions of humans are inherently appealing, as are perfectly realistic depictions, but that any depiction in-between will be inherently eerie or uncanny (see figure 1). The “valley” refers to that purportedly unavoidably disturbing region in the middle. Mori contended that the valley existed for static as well as dynamic humanlike figures. He also contended that one should avoid making robots that might land in the valley, out of fear that such robots would be rejected by people” (Hanson, p. 1, 2005).
According to this definition, the Creature appears to be a worst-case-scenario; his appearance landed him smack dab in the center of the Valley, and as such, he was rejected by his maker and by society. He didn’t look completely nonhuman; he was, after all, assembled using human parts. But he didn’t look quite right, either; in fact, his appearance as describe in the novel is nothing short of horrifying.
His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! -- Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriences only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same color as the dun white sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips. (Shelley, 1869).
In the Uncanny Valley theory, this sort of creature, if it were a robot, would be terrifying, and would be exceptionally hard to market for any purpose. Thus, it is not surprising that in the novel, Victor’s initial intentions of using his creation for science are for naught; the Creature is too uncanny, and would have never been accepted.
These theories and laws of robotics were created in part due to Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the comparison is apt. The primary difference is that rather than a creation of metal and wires, Victor’s Creation is made of skin and bones; the basic premise is the same. We fear artificial beings for their perceived lack of humanity, and are unsettled if they fall into the grey area between humanlike and non-humanlike appearance. Shelley’s ideas have helped shape the future of robotics, in a way that is subtle but far-reaching. The art of writing, both from Shelley and Asimov, has been the driving force of robotics thus far, and the influence has leant a surreal, artistic quality to the entire field of robotics. Art is our attempt to express our inner selves; in creating artificial life, that art has a voice with which to challenge our entire perception of humanity, and what it means to be a human.
Hanson, David. “Expanding the Aesthetic Possibilities for Humanoid Robots.” Android Science Workshop, 2005. Acccessed 10/26/11. www.androidscience.com
Johnson, Jhonelle. “Nearly Human: Dickens’s Estella and Mary Shelley’s Creature as Representations of the Uncanny.” Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn College, May 2009. Accessed 10/26/11.
McCauley, Lee. “The Frankenstein Complex and Asimov’s Three Laws.” University of Memphis, 2007. Web. Accessed 10/26/11.
Rollin, Bernard E. The Frankenstein Syndrome: Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus. Boston: Sever, Francis, & Co., 1869. eBook.
Zylinska, Joanna. The Cyborg Experiments: the Extensions of the Body in the Media Age. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002. Print